Scott Joplin (1868 -- 1917)was the greatest composer of the uniquely American music known as ragtime, which flourished from roughly the last decade of the Nineteenth Century to about 1920. Ragtime is a music of fusion. It combines strong African American components,in its rhythmic complexity and syncopations, with the format of the American march and popular song. Joplin's ragtime, in particular, combines elements of classical music with a distinctively American strain. It was one of the first of an ongoing series of attempts by Americans to create an American musical idiom which combined the classics with African American themes. On one side, ragtime helped give rise to jazz and to the blues. On the other side, in its lyricism and commitment to a written score (rather than improvisation)ragtime has become an American classic, and deservedly so.
This is the second volume of Joplin's rags and other piano music released by Naxos, following an earlier CD by Alexander Peskanov a few years ago. The pianist is Benjamin Loeb, an enterprising conductor and pianist from Texas, who has received a doctorate from Juilliard and who currently is the Associate Condutor of the El Paso Symphony among many other endeavors. Loeb performs this music masterfully and with a twinkle in his eye. The tempos are well-paced -- he avoids the temptation to play too fast or to drag -- with strong rhythmic inflections and moments of songlike reflection. He uses the pedal fully without overdoing it and blurring the melodic lines.
The CD includes 16 selections, ranging from Joplin's earliest piano work, "The Crush Collision March" of 1897, to his latest, the posthumously-published "Reflection Rag: Syncompated Musings" of 1917. Most of Joplin's rags date from his years in Missouri (before 1908). A small number were composed while he lived in Chicago and did some itenerant performing, while the remainder date from the composer's final years in New York City where he was preoccupied with work on his opera, "Treemonisha". Many people think of ragtime as highly rhythmical and flashy (along the lines of the "Maple Leaf Rag" not included on this CD), but much of Joplin's music is restrained and introspective.
For the past several years, I have played much of Joplin on the piano. It was refreshing to gain new insights from Loeb's playing on music that has become familiar to me. (There is no better way to get a feel for any music than by trying to play it.) Thus the pieces I enjoyed included the "Weeping Willow" a rag with a lovely swinging theme, part of which was later cribbed in the popular song "Swanee". I also enjoyed the delicate "Gladiolus Rag" which I studied relatively recently, and "The Chrysanthemum, "an ambitious piece which Joplin styled an "Afro-American Intermezzo." Among Joplin's later works included on this CD, "Scott Joplin's New Rag" is a challenging piece with modern chromatic passages. "Swipsey" is an early Joplin work, one in which he collaborated with his student, Arthur Marshall. There are two pieces on this CD which require the pianist to accompany himself by stamping his foot: the "Rag-Time Dance" and "Stoptime Rag". Joplin's "Breeze from Alabama" is known to musical scholars for some highly imaginative harmonic writing between its stanzas. Of the works on this CD that I hadn't known before, I enjoyed "Eugenia," a rag with a highly delicate, melodic theme. I hope to try to learn it.
I am pleased that Naxos is returning to the Joplin rags as part of its American classics series. The earlier volume by Pleskanov received mixed reviews, but this CD by Loeb is all that could be wished. I look forward to what I assume will be a third volume with the remainder of Joplin's piano music. While Joplin was the leading composer of ragtime, there were two other excellent composers of music in this genre who are now, unfortunately, known primarily to ragtime afficianados. Naxos could make another valuable contribution to the discovery of American music by recording the rags of Joplin's contemporaries and friends James Scott and Joseph Lamb.